Society of the Sacred Mission
SSM Michaelmas sermon, 7th October, 2017
Dr Mark Lindsay, Trinity College Melbourne, preached at St Peter's, Eastern Hill
Revelation 12: 7-12, John 1: 45-51
Good morning. I'm delighted to be here with you today, as we celebrate the Feast of St Michael and All Angels, and indeed also celebrate and give thanks for the work of the Society of the Sacred Mission over these past 125 years.
Thank you for the invitation to come and share this time with you. I bring you greetings from the students and faculty of the Trinity College Theological School, particularly from our Dean, the Revd Canon Professor Dorothy Lee.
I am especially pleased to be here with you on this day, because as both a theological educator and an historical theologian, it seems to me—in my observations and study of the patterns of Christian belief as they have changed and been challenged over the many centuries — that we are at what may well prove to be one of those rare, defining moments in the Church's history. Frankly, there aren't that many of them: the Day of Pentecost; the Council of Nicaea in 325; the start of the Great Schism between East and West in 1054; the beginnings of the Reformation in 1517; the Second Vatican Council from 1962-1965... And now, perhaps, now.
Of course, it's always a great danger to proclaim one's own time as bearing particular historical significance, especially when one is still in it. Nonetheless, let me ask you to suspend your disbelief for just a few minutes, as I try to suggest why I think this may be the case — why I think we might be at one such defining time for the Church—what the role of theological education has to play if I'm right, and how we might understand this in the light of our day's Patron, St Michael.
Let me begin with St Michael himself. Not a saint in our normal way of thinking about them but rather an angel, Michael is, as I'm sure you know, a strangely shadowy figure within the Scriptures (as indeed are all the angels). Mentioned within the Hebrew Bible only three times, each of which is in the prophecy of Daniel, and in the New Testament only twice, Michael has nonetheless been endowed with a rich and distinctive narrative. In Daniel, he is the Defensor Israhel, the Defender of Israel — the defender, that is, of the People of God. In the Book of Revelation, he is the one who battles and eventually defeats Satan, throwing him and his minions out of heaven. But if they are his roles, do they sound like the works of an angel? Protecting God's elect, throwing down Satan from the heavens... Do they not, rather, sound like the works of the Lord himself? Yes indeed! And given that the name 'Michael' means 'who is like God', it is quite possible that the angel Michael can and should be identified with Christ, the defender of God's people and the victor of Satan par excellence.
Nonetheless, the three questions I posed earlier require us still to ask: if St Michael is none other than Christ, against what or against whom do we need him to defend us today? And what makes our present adversaries so threatening that we can justifiably consider this time as a pivotal time in the history of the Church?
Well, of course, there are the usual responses to that: the enemies of the gospel are the ever-increasing march of secularism in our society — a secularism that refuses to play by the outdated rules of Christendom; a secularism that refuses to allow the Church (or more accurately, the much-vaunted 'Judaeo-Christian values') still to have the dominant voice in our world. This is the enemy against which groups like the Australian Christian Lobby valiantly — but if I may say, inadvisedly — fight.
Then there's the enemy of political interference. How much do we read these days in the papers, and see in the media, about new forms of legislation that allegedly threaten to curtail the rights of Churches to function according to their faith? Will Churches run afoul of anti-discrimination laws? Will priests be forced to conduct weddings that conflict with their consciences? Will Christian bakers face prison time for refusing to bake certain types of wedding cake? These are the apparent threats from increasingly hostile and increasingly anti-religious governments. But do these represent the real threat to our faith? Not really. Even if each of these legislative threats came to pass, the Church would be no worse off than it was in the days before Constantine, during which of course our faith flourished and our Church grew. Indeed, given the census data and our own observations of declining parishes, maybe a bit of state-sponsored action might help fill the pews again!
And we ought not forget to mention, of course, the enemy of radical Islam. A very easy, and very dangerous adversary to identify. Is the Church really threatened by this? In some parts of the world, absolutely.
But to focus on this threat — to focus our energies on any of these purported threats to the Church and to our Christian faith — is to take our eyes off our more real and present danger.
The enemy against which the Church so desperately needs Michael-Christ to defend us comes not from secularism, nor from hostile governments, nor even from Islamic extremism, but from our own internal, intra-Christian, animosities. How well we know that the Anglican Communion is reeling and withering under the strain of internal hostilities. How well we know that the battle-lines are now drawn, not so much along issues of liturgy or churchmanship, but around questions of hermeneutics and morality. Heresies have been declared, anathemas have been issued, schisms have been initiated — not because we have competing theologies of the Trinity, or because we are still debating the nature of Christ's kenotic subordination; not because we are hung up on eucharistic real presence, or even on the appropriateness of Marian devotion.
No — we are being torn apart by competing moralities, and therefore by different understandings of the good news itself. Does the gospel require us to exclude from our midst the other, the stranger, the different, and the marginalized, until they become like us? Or does the gospel command us to embody and enflesh — in both our personal and in our ecclesial discipleship — the very solidarity with the other, the stranger, the different, and the marginalized, that made Jesus' own morality seem scandalous to the authorities of his day?
The dangers we face today and against which we need defending come, that is, not from without but from within. From the dogmatism of those who decry what Muriel Porter has labelled 'the new Puritanism' on the one hand, and on the other hand from the compassionless religiosity of those who feel compelled to reject an all-too inclusive liberalism.
There are no good guys and bad guys in this situation. Absolute right and absolute wrong do not fall easily or neatly to one side or the other. We hold our positions and argue our cases, always with mixed motives and with at least a hint of hubris.
This is the danger from which St Michael — 'who is like God' — must defend God's people in these days.
And so finally, the role of theological education — that work with which the Society of the Sacred Mission has for so long been associated — what role does that play in this dangerous and threatening time? I could spend hours talking about my vision for theological education in this country, but let me say just two things. Two things that I have learnt from my own theological hero, the great Swiss theologian Karl Barth.
First: theology is and must be a modest science. Knowing that all we can ever say is but a tentative and fragile attempt to express the inexpressible mystery of God, we must not over-reach ourselves, or fall victim to our own certainties. For modesty is charity — willing to believe and to trust that even our theological and ecclesial opponents come to their task and their convictions with good (if not also mixed) motives.
And second: theology is and must be joyful. There is no place, says Barth, for a theologian — or, I would add, for a priest — to be gloomy and glum. We have in our trust the good news of salvation, the reconciliation of all creation to God its maker, the joyful and willing embrace of God who in Christ throws his arms around all he has made, in love and welcome.
Were we to hold these two principles together, and use them to guide our ways of teaching the Church, training its ministers, and engaging with the world, then I suspect most of the matters that currently divide us would fall away into the adiaphora.
These are the tools by which Michael-Christ will defend his people in these days of testing and challenge: let us be modest in what we think we know, and joyful in our proclamation of Jesus, of whom alone we are certain.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.